My husband and I are the parents of adopted children. We are their real parents because we are the only ones they have. We know their seasons, we know when it’s bad, we know when it’s good, we know when they are not themselves.
How is this possible? When we’d just adopted our first child, Gaia, the question was “Do you know anything about her ‘real mum’?” Now we have Luca as well, the question has shifted: ‘Are they ‘real siblings’? What makes ‘real’ siblings? Blood? Is it blood and genetics that are at fault when siblings don’t talk to each other, hardly bond and live like strangers? And should we thank DNA when the opposite happens?
Last year Luca suddenly went cross-eyed overnight. Immediately we knew it wasn’t just an eyesight issue. At the time his co-ordination completely deserted him, he went floppy to the extent that he forgot how to even walk. A horrible month in hospital ensued while we waited to hear what this thing was. A virus? Brain damage? Meningitis? Nothing conclusive. Now we know what it isn’t but not what it is.
In the medical profession everyone is ‘confused’ but actually we are not because we knew we had adopted a child who had been physically and emotionally damaged before even being born. In recent months, it’s become obvious that he has multiple problems but we don’t quite know how deep it goes. His brain is affected. For a child approaching three he cannot really understand or communicate concepts. There are a few words he says but I don’t think he always knows why he’s saying them. He can’t tell me if he had a happy day at nursery or even answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ because he doesn’t really know what I’m talking about when I ask him. He just looks at me with impossibly big, lost eyes and just repeats what I say. Currently he is seeing a speech therapist, physiotherapist, developmental pediatrician, feeding specialist and undergoing genetic testing. He wears glasses and a patch and is a fairly regular visitor to our GP for recurrent infections and other issues.
Watching him go through test after test, being prodded, poked and shipped from hospital to hospital, hurts, right to the core of my shattered soul. Just like a real mum. I feel all sorts of things. Mostly I am sad because I think it’s unfair that he should go through this. I know he is the product of a ‘real’ mother who abused alcohol and possibly drugs for the entire duration of her pregnancy. He was that unwanted. I was talking to someone whose (biological) child has disabilities and she summarised it beautifully, she said “It’s not painful because we wanted the perfect child, but because we want our child to have a perfect life, and we know he simply will not”.
I feel pride at the way he smiles at life, is always up for a cuddle and finds even the hospital a familiar cosy place. At the way he holds my hand when I sleep with him and get overwhelmed with fear and upset almost as if he is the one comforting me. I am inspired by him, his resilience and unconditional love. And then I feel gratitude. A lot of people tell me “You are so good for what you have done, you know he would be in an orphanage if it wasn’t for you, he might be dead now” but I am the one who is grateful, for what he means to me and everyone around him.
Which leads me to the ‘real siblings’.
Gaia has every reason to be jealous. She was 2.5 when we went to meet him, a difficult age to accept a new brother. A difficult age to understand that we were flying to Mexico, where we adopted her, to now ‘meet him’ and bring him back forever, with all the implications that the whole thing brought. She was and still can be insecure with new people and obsessive with her attachment to me. When people tried to shake my hands she would stand between us and say “This is MY MAMMA!” especially if it was kids doing it. It was impossible to have playdates at home without it turning into a mini drama where she would push anyone who came close to me away. Everyone swore it would be a disaster to add another child to the family at that time. I am not going to deny it took serious adjustment.
But right now this is what I know. Just as we read our kids, Gaia and Luca understand each other.
Luca’s first word was “Gaia’. She is the only one he really recognises and always has done, at both a rational and emotional level. Whenever he is at the doctors and won’t sit still we mention the magic word “Gaia’ and he stops and smiles. I cannot take him to the school gates for drop-off because he has a melt-down at the thought of leaving her (he does not and never has done that about me!).
Gaia has demanded to sleep in the same room as him. She says ‘sharing is caring’ so I want to share everything with Luca, even my room’. In the morning she gets him out of the cot (she is barely five) and gets him ready. If I am unwell she even makes him breakfast. She sits on the floor with the patience of a saint, teaching him colours and numbers that she knows he will not remember. Despite us never ever mentioning the fact that he has issues (amongst other reasons because we don’t even know what the issue IS) a week ago she told us at dinner that when she grows up she ‘wants to be a teacher of children like Luca’. When I asked her if she meant a nursery teacher, she replied ‘no a teacher of children who take a long time to learn’. She encourages him to push forward even when I give up trying. She tells me not be ‘discouraging’ of him as ‘he will get there’. And I sit there and watch this miracle unfold in front of my eyes. Are they real siblings? I have never witnessed anything more real than the bond between my children.
And today if there is only one thing Luca knows is that he’s wanted. By me, his father and his sister Gaia. We are all real, like the bond that gets us out of bed in the morning and the love we have for each other. And we support each other, especially our dear little soul who often has no idea where he is or who to hug. The most important thing is that we are there to hug him. You can’t get more real than that.